Sunday, June 14, 2009

What if the techno-optimists and cornucopians are half right?

Some days I wake up and wish for the world's techno-optimists and cornucopians (TOCs) to be right. The future would be so much easier for all of us. But perhaps more immediately, the present would become a less worrisome time zone. Those who anguish about peak oil, climate change, water depletion, and the panoply of resource and ecosystem disasters that are already arriving or are in the making would get a pleasant reprieve. And, the vast majority of citizens on the planet who almost never give such things a thought would simply go on as they have been.

That this majority should, in my view, give more thought to such matters goes without saying. But if the evidence were so clear--I don't say obvious because it's obvious to me but still unclear to most others--then we'd already be making significant progress on these problems. Instead, they are getting worse, some of them very rapidly.

But, how pleasing it would be if I were wrong, and the TOCs were right. We could all sit back and wait for the miracles to arrive from the scientists, the engineers, and the various high priests of high technology. We could count on the Earth to give us her abundance in whatever quantity we need, when we need it, and at prices and energy costs we can afford.

But what if the situation is not clear cut? What if the TOCs are half right? What if, for example, oil shale were to become a low-cost, high-volume source of oil for the world in relatively short order because of technological breakthroughs (which the techno-optimists keep telling us are inevitable)? There is as much potential oil locked in oil shale in the American West as in all the world's known oil reserves combined. (Link opens to large PDF prepared by the U. S. Energy Information Administration.)

But herein lies the problem. The TOCs cannot count on solving any single ecological or resource problem in isolation. For as those who understand oil shale know, both large amounts of water and large amounts of energy will be necessary to extract oil from it.

No worries, say the TOCs. We'll design a process that needs neither copious quantities of water nor extravagant amounts of energy.

So, let's say they succeed, and let's assume there is enough other oil production to sustain projections of world economic and population growth through 2050. Now, all the other resource and ecosystem problems are likely to get worse.

No problem, respond the TOCs. First, we'll fix the climate through geoengineering. We'll put mirrors in space to intercept a portion of the sunlight and reverse global warming.

Are you sure this won't create perverse climate effects in various regions or localities? We think there won't be a problem, the TOCs say. (Not particularly reassuring.)

But what about the acidification of the oceans that is a byproduct of rising carbon dioxide emissions? We'll put quicklime in the oceans, they respond. That will solve it.

But where will you get the energy to produce the quicklime from limestone? We'll get it from flared gas, solar thermal and nuclear power, say the TOCs.

And, for projects of this scale, how will you convince the public to pay for these gargantuan public works projects? For example, the energy requirements for producing the quicklime alone would be equivalent to one-third the total production of oil each year!

We're scientists and technologists, not politicians, the TOCs respond. Somebody will have to convince the public.

How about water depletion? Simple, the TOCs say. We'll desalinate. There's lots of water in the ocean.

And, where will you get the energy to do that? We'll use nuclear power and solar thermal to do it.

We thought you were going to use that energy for making quicklime? Oh, we'll just have to build a lot more capacity, the TOCs respond.

And, so the scale of the responses grows ever larger with each challenge. And, the logistics of having to do them simultaneously is glossed over. And, the political hurdles are largely ignored. And, the side effects have to be dealt with using yet more techno-fixes. And, all of this will be done against a backdrop of ever-growing population and increasing living standards worldwide. Right?

And, yet some of the many schemes proposed by the TOCs may be implemented. Some of them may even work and work well. But it is doubtful that their approach will succeed at solving more than a fraction of our major ecological and resource problems, let alone the problems they create with their solutions. The trouble is that the resources, energy and money devoted to such fixes will not be available for alternate adaptive strategies such as powering down and relocalizing, both of which require an infrastructure significantly different from the one we have now. Naturally, these more humble strategies could be aided by technology, but not of the kind that the TOCs are hoping will keep us on a course of business as usual.

That points us to the biggest danger of all: It's not that the TOCs are dead wrong, something I believe might actually be clear to nearly every thinking person if it were true. Rather, the biggest danger is that the TOCs are half right and that their endless parade of techno-fixes will prevent resources from flowing to other endeavors which are much more likely to produce a sustainable world in the long run.


ebishirl said...

Wow, great analysis Kurt. You've nailed down completely the reason I've found the faith in techno-fixes so unrealistic: in a perfect storm of environmental and resource challenges, finding a techno-fix to one problem -- even if it's completely successful with no unintended side effects (unlikely) -- still leaves all the other problems unresolved.

Thanks for the well thought-out post.

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, of course!
What you are describing is the runaway of the "low hanging fruit" policy.
Anyone having read Tainter knows that.
So what?
I mean, what is your expected audience?

Andrea Muhrrteyn said...

Hey Curt,

Great article as usual....

Well, not sure if this is up your alley, but if it finds an exponential growth curve.... then it could indeed be a vehicle for our conducts like Kurt, to start singing not only to the choir, but to the sheep......

Anyway.. so here it is:

Parallel Goals: Economic Relocalisation & Political Secession:

Act4: ♥ Economic Relocalization of Local Communities for Self Sufficiency ♥

Act4: ♥ Worldwide Peaceful Secessionary Movements Peaceful Political Secession!!! ♥

Sign the HARTSSTARH Legal and Political Petition to the Nobel Institute: Norwegian Nobel Committee

Rice Farmer said...

The tragedy here is that the TOCs' misguided attempts to prop up industrial civilization and sustain growth will take away resources that are badly needed for the transition to the new economy. There are plenty of examples already, such as the colossal sums of money (or more accurately, the resources and energy mobilized by that money) wasted by trying to keep the dying automotive industry in its current form. Countries with auto industries should have started years ago to downsize them, and work on the transition to low-power, low-speed public transportation, and to localization. After many bailouts and rescues, the problem is just worse.

Unfortunately, the TOCs will likely continue to influence the thinking of the public and politicos alike, all of whom want to have their cake and eat it, too.

Clifford J. Wirth, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of New Hampshire said...

Hi Kurt,

The techno-optimists and cornucopians are like Pied Pipers, leading the world in the wrong direction. Ever since the National Academy of Sciences study published in 1980,

it was clear that we were in trouble unless we (1) discovered a way to store electric energy for use in large tractors/combines, long distance trucking, ships, etc.; (2) developed the breeder reactor; and (3) put the brakes on the international market economy. We have fail on all three of these fronts.

Now, there is no time nor capital to develop some techno-fix even if there were some fix, and, there is no fix to be found.

So, it is time for Peak Oil preparations. But the techno-optimists and cornucopians are ideologues who have not read the NAS study, think, and face reality.

As a consequence, the techno-optimists and cornucopians are the blind leading the blind.

The public is daily bombarded with technofixes like the solar/wind fixes that can't possibly help, and in fact they consume lots of fossil energy in their manufacture, development, and transport -- and yield electric power, which does not help the liquid fuels crisis.

It it time to prepare for Peak Oil impacts and how to survive Peak Oil.

Iconoclast421 said...

Of course, the TOCs are right. For the most part anyway. They just happen to miss one small detail. A whole bunch of people arent going to get to share in the bounty the future will bring. 20 years from now, there will be superfast computers, electric cars, Maglift VAWTs, nanorobot workers, 3D spy satellites, wireless/keyboardless/mouseless computer interfaces, programmable viruses and bacteria, and bla bla bla you name it. But only for The Select Few. The vast majority of the population, even in wealthy nations, will be poor, dumbed down, and thoroughly entertained.